Red Flag and Rubberneck
Directed by Alex Karpovsky
Alex Karpovsky tends to play characters who are smart, articulate and, above all, forthright—which often means he’s a jerk. His upper lip always seems a curl away from a sneer. On Girls, which is how you probably know who he is if you know who he is, he’s the one who always says what he means—you don’t have to coax it out of him past a half dozen denials and demurrals. Since at least Funny Ha Ha in 2002, the incestuous indie film scene of which Karpovsky is such a big part has made movies about dithering; their shared underlying theme is indecision. Maybe that’s why so many directors—Andrew Bujalski (Beeswax), Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture, her TV show), Mike Birbiglia (Sleepwalk with Me) and a dozen or so smaller-profile ones—cast Karpovsky again and again as the bolt of truth. You could call him a dick if he weren’t also so charming. He’s the most ubiquitous actor working today because he’s so un-full of shit—and every movie needs somebody to be.
Over the next two weeks, the distribution arm of the Tribeca Film Festival releases his two most recent directorial efforts (in which he’s also the main character), while a new movie in which he stars will open in DUMBO. That’s just this cycle: he also starred in Supporting Characters, released last month, and he’ll be in the new Coen Brothers movie, which should premiere at Cannes in May. He’s often on HBO on Sundays. In 2012 he acted in seven movies, according to IMDb, two of which he wrote, directed and produced; he also appeared regularly on Girls, in one episode of SVU, and in a short film. He’s prolific.
But I don’t mean to imply he’s one-note. In fact, in Sam Neave’s Almost in Love (opening February 15 at reRun), he’s most moving when eschewing his usual plainspokenness. The movie is split in two sections, “Sunset” (set on a Staten Island balcony overlooking the ferry terminal) and “Sunrise” (set 18 months later in a beachfront Hamptons home), each filmed in unbroken 40-minute takes. It’s gimmicky, but also smartly conceived and executed, the camera popping in and out of conversations like a sauntering party guest, catching bits of dialog that seem to comment on other chats we just listened to. Karpovsky plays one point of a love triangle, pining for an ex-girlfriend who recently ended an affair with his best friend. At the end of “Sunset,” the friend and the ex pressure Karpovsky to admit how he really feels about her, and he hems, and he haws, so when he finally comes out with it and frankly, finally, admits that he loves her, it’s heartbreaking. Karpovsky knows that to make it work, he has to first hold back.
But he’s not always so successful when playing against type. In Rubberneck (opening February 22 at Lincoln Center), which he wrote and directed as well as stars in, he plays a laboratory researcher unhealthily obsessed with a colleague. You rarely see him this way: clean-cut, introverted, wearing glasses. As the character keeps his emotions buried, so too does the film. It’s like an aesthetic experiment in the banality of mental illness that winds up feeling banal.
More successful is Red Flag (playing with Rubberneck as a double feature), about an actor-filmmaker named Alex Karpovsky on tour with his movie Woodpecker, which is a real movie that the real Alex Karpovsky directed. After his girlfriend broke up with him, IRL Karpovsky did embark on such a tour, and fought off the loneliness by bringing some friends and shooting this semi-autobiographical feature along the way. Obviously, he’s not cast against type here—he’s cast as himself, but a self-deprecated version; Red Flag presents an honest portrait of a dishonest man, and looks at how eloquence can be used in the disservice of truth. Here, Karpovsky is a liar, his articulateness a way to dissemble, to conceal what he really means as easily as a mumble or a stutter. The movie is a few things: a kind of origin story (How Karpovsky Got His Acerbic Wit), as well as a break-up movie in which emotional pain persistently manifests itself physically. But most of all, it demonstrates how talking isn’t just the tool of the honest man—it’s also the bullshitter’s.
Opens February 22